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Tennessee Lawmakers Consider New Type of School Voucher Program

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By Christina Samuels. Cross-posted from the On Special Education blog

A bill currently working its way through the Tennessee legislature would allow any of the more than 100,000 students with individualized education programs in the state to use per-pupil funding for a private education. 

The special education voucher legislation cleared the state Senate education committee March 18 and has been referred to the Senate finance committee. A companion bill in the state House is scheduled to be considered March 31.

The language of the bill carries few restrictions. It would create an "individualized education account" funded by state and local dollars based on per-pupil spending; for fiscal 2016 that is estimated to be about $6,600 per student. Any of the state's students ages 6-21 who are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would be eligible to create an account; currently, that's about 118,000 students, and the state estimates that about 1 percent might take advantage of the program in its first year. 

Parents must agree to provide their children an education in English/language arts, math, science and social studies. They also can't use the money for computer equipment, but tutoring, private school tuition, textbooks and college courses are all eligible expenses. 

Voucher supporters from Arizona and Florida testified March 18 before the Senate education committee that similar bills in their states have helped their children. Julie Kleffel, a Longwood, Fla., mother, said her 7-year-old daughter started to regress in a crowded public school.

Kleffel said she uses Florida funds to pay for therapies and support for her daughter Faith, who has Down syndrome. Faith, who is homeschooled, now speaks in five- to seven-word sentences and is reading above grade level, her mother said. The voucher "made it possible for us to customize her learning environment," she said. 

The Tennessee School Boards Association opposes the measure. Lee Harrell, the director of government relations for the organization, testified at the same meeting that he understood the intent of the legislators to help families that are struggling to find appropriate instruction for their children.

"But this would apply to any student with an individualized education program," he said, including gifted children, who in Tennessee are served through the special education process and also receive IEPs under state law. "This legislation is much, much broader than other voucher bills you have discussed this year," he told lawmakers.

During this session, the Tennessee legislature is also considering a voucher bill for up to 5,000 low-income students enrolled in public schools that have been deemed failing under state accountability measures. 


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